Here's how she makes room in her tight budget for snacks and prepackaged favorites.
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Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Clark

Jessica Clark is the founder, recipe developer, and gluten-free eating expert at Gluten Free Supper. She lives in Nebraska with her husband and nine-year-old son. These days, she says, the family food budget is pretty tight.

"Almost all of our monthly income goes toward bills or regular expenses," she says. To make sure there's a bit left over each month for savings and some spending, they cap the weekly grocery spending at $150. "Our food budget used to be a bit more — about $800 a month — but we have recently cut back in order to save more money."

Whereas she once focused her grocery money-saving strategy on couponing, she has since given that up in favor of other approaches.

"I started couponing for groceries around the same time I started blogging [a decade ago]. It really is great for saving money, but it also takes a lot of time and effort," she says. "I decided couponing was just a little bit too much work for me, so I started finding other ways to save money on groceries."

Here's how she makes it happen more easily these days — without clipping a single coupon.

Online-First Shopping Strategy

Clark typically shops the local Hy-Vee as well as Sam's Club and Target, usually ordering the groceries online and doing a drive-up pickup. "Order groceries online so that you can find exactly what you want and sort by price to find the cheapest," she recommends. "This also eliminates the urge to purchase impulse items."

Since she shops for the same items just about every week, she created a spreadsheet to organize her list. "This helps online ordering to be a very quick process and allows me to keep track of prices so I know when to stock up," she says.

Clark advises maximizing the approach by watching the prices carefully each time you shop: "Keep track of prices on items that you purchase often. Then once those items reach the lowest price you have seen, you can stock up and have enough on hand until the next time it drops in price."

Here's what's on her spreadsheet:

  • water (24 pack)
  • K-Cup pods for the coffee maker
  • protein powder
  • apple juice
  • granola bars
  • bananas 
  • gluten-free bread
  • Zevia soda (12 pack)
  • paper plates (45 count)
  • sparkling water
  • vanilla almond milk
  • dairy-free creamer
  • orange juice
  • apples
  • oranges
  • grapes
  • toilet paper
  • paper towels
  • disposable pans
  • frozen chicken breasts

Splurges and Savings

Despite the tight overall budget, Clark says the family is willing to splurge on convenient and tempting items like snacks, desserts, and pre-made meal items from the deli — plus other items that just simplify life in the kitchen.

For instance, "the disposable pans that we buy from Sam's Club are only $0.22 cents each, and they make cleaning up after dinner time so much easier," she says.

Still, she's willing to compromise on nearly every item on her list for which there is a more affordable swap available. "I will pretty much compromise on anything we buy if I can find a cheaper or better alternative," she says. "But I tend to be pretty picky about toilet paper!"

Versatile Staples

Clark says that frozen chicken breasts are a staple in her home, in part because the affordable go-to item provides a ton of versatility in the kitchen. "I can throw a bunch of them in my slow cooker and let it cook for me all day," she says. "Then I can shred the chicken and split it up in freezer bags for easy throw-together meals."

With this shredded chicken, she's whipped up chicken soup, chicken tacos, chicken Alfredo pasta, barbeque chicken — and on and on.

Using her staples, Clark makes enough dinner each night for her family of three to ensure that there will be leftovers for lunches.

"Once dinner is over, I pack up the leftovers in reusable, dishwasher safe, freezable, and microwavable lunch containers that I purchased for cheap off of Amazon," she says. "This makes it easy for us to just pop one in the microwave for lunch like a homemade frozen dinner."

Meal Planning

Clark plans her meals with intention — and it starts with doing inventory in her own kitchen. "I tend to see what we have on hand and come up with some meal ideas from those items, and then make a grocery list for the rest of the items that I still need to make those meals," she says.

In fact, she calls this approach her best money-saving grocery tip.

"Always try to make meals around the items you already have in your pantry, fridge, and freezer," she explains. "You will be surprised by how many meals you can actually make with stuff you already have on hand! Plus, it eliminates food waste as well."

In addition to those frozen chicken breasts, some of the staples Clark buys for easy meal planning include steamable frozen veggies and bulk bags of rice.

"Sam's Club has 25 pounds of rice for under $10!" she says. "With these three items and some seasonings or sauces, I can make a lot of different meals."

Clark also says she uses her slow cooker as an essential tool in making meal prep easier and more pleasant in her home. 

"One great tip I have is one I discovered when realizing I have such a disdain for browning ground beef on the stove," she says. "I like to cook a bunch of ground beef or turkey and save it in freezer bags just like a do with my chicken for easy dump-and-go meals — but it's really a pain. So I found out that I can cook up to eight pounds of ground meat in my large slow cooker at once! I just dump in all the beef and set it to low for six to eight hours."

Then, she just periodically uses the meat chopper she bought cheaply on Amazon to break it up throughout the day. "If you have two larger slow cookers, you can cook your chicken and beef or turkey at the same time and have a bunch of meat ready to go for meals for a week or two," she says. "It's so much easier for meal prep!"